Canuck punk

Constantines: the sound of Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer fronting Fugazi
Canuck punk

By Michael Alan Goldberg

The raucous Constantines take Canada by storm

You probably know the old joke: Why do Canadians do it doggy style? So both people can watch the hockey game. Well, if even hot, sweaty sex can't fully distract them from their frozen national obsession, how's an indie-rock band like the Constantines supposed to fare there during the NHL playoffs?

"Yeah, we were just in Calgary the other night while the Flames were playing the Red Wings, and the room was pretty empty when we started," laughs frontman Bry Webb. "And then, like all of these people showed up all at once later on - it was completely obvious that the game had just ended."

Under normal circumstances, though, Canadians haven't been hesitant to demonstrate their passion for the quintet, which - as nearly every article and review has rightfully pointed out - basically sounds like Bruce Springsteen or Joe Strummer fronting Fugazi. Just two years after forming in their native Guelph, Ontario, the Constantines' 2001 self-titled debut became one of the longest-charting albums in the nation's history, eagerly embraced by fans and critics alike, and even earning a Best Alternative Album nomination at the Juno Awards (the equivalent of our Grammys). And their raucous live reputation has made them the band to catch both in the clubs and at summer festival shows, where they're known to regularly steal the thunder from some of their more high-profile countrymen.

"It's pretty exciting to know that we can actually do this for awhile, just sustain ourselves as a band," says Webb. "It's a pretty remarkable thing, and I never expected it would be going this well at this point, so it really means a lot to us."

The good word about the Cons is steadily spreading here in the States as well. It's possible they're benefiting from the renewed attention on the Great White North - while it might be a stretch to call Canada the "new Sweden," plenty of music press ink has been splashed of late over such Canuck acts as Hot Hot Heat, Broken Social Scene, and New Pornographers, among many others. But the Constantines' expansion into the U.S. has less to do with flavor-of-the-moment hype than carrying forward the organic, grassroots approach the band took to achieve success at home. In other words, touring their asses off and putting out good music. You'll certainly find the latter on their most recent album, Shine a Light, which was released by Sub Pop last fall.

It's Webb who invites the Springsteen/Strummer comparisons, manipulating his croak into either an urgent near-howl (as on the frenzied opener "National Hum") or a gruff yet soulful grunt (the spare, moody "Goodbye Baby and Amen"). And his voice meshes quite uniquely with the angular, inflamed riffs and minimalist doodles he trades off with fellow guitarist Steve Lambke; the insistent melodic throb of bassist Dallas Wehrle; the kinetic rhythms of drummer Doug MacGregor; and the gritty organ/piano textures provided by Will Kidman.

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It's an exciting and visceral combination, one that most bands would be thrilled to capture on tape, but Webb still feels the Constantines can do even better. "I don't think we've hit our stride as far as recording goes," he insists. "We're predominantly a live band and that's where our communication works the best. In the studio we're still trying to adjust to that way of creating something, dealing with overdubs, stopping and starting, things like that. I like the way they did things in the old days at Sun Studios, where they had the whole band in one room playing live together with just a couple of mics and that spontaneity and energy transferred to the recording even if it sounded a little raw. I don't know if we could make a whole record like that, but we'd like to try.

"I think the whole thing about albums having to be really well-produced nowadays is just about maintaining the division between the audience and the performer," he continues. "It maintains the mystification of fame and it's based on some supposed 'untouchable grace' that the performer has that the public doesn't have access to. But I think music should be something that everyone can be a part of. That's how I got into making music, by going to basement shows and all-ages shows when I was growing up and seeing that there was this community of people and bands where everyone was all in it together. I wanted to be a part of that."

In keeping with that spirit, the Constantines encourage audience participation at their shows to the point of handing out hundreds of tambourines, shakers, and various other noisemakers (usually obtained at a local dollar store) to the crowd.

"During the last couple of songs we try to get as many people making noise as possible," says Webb. "That's usually the best part for me, the most transcendent moment of the night. When it's on, it's incredible." •

By Michael Alan Goldberg

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